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On Mission Together

Series: Elect Exiles

Sermon by David Strain on Aug 11, 2019

1 Peter 1:1-2

Please take a Bible in hand and turn with me to 1 Peter, chapter 1. 1 Peter, chapter 1. On Wednesday night past at our annual Vision Night we rolled out our new teaching theme for the year that we’ll be focusing on in different ways throughout the life of our church. There should be bookmarks in the pews in front of you and if you see one there please take it in hand. You can see the teaching theme printed on them. I’d love it if you would take one of those and put it in your Bible and keep it and use it. The teaching theme is “On Mission Together: Proclaiming the Excellencies of Him Who Called Us.” We want to think through the call of Jesus Christ to a life on mission, not merely seeing mission as an occasional task but as a way to frame our whole lives as we serve our neighbor in Jesus’ name. We’re not really called in the New Testament scriptures to venture out from behind our barricades in an occasional foray into enemy territory to tell someone about Jesus once in a while before we beat a hasty retreat back into our Christian subculture. No, we are called to an entire lifestyle and a mindset of humble service and engagement with the world in Christ’s name. We’re called to be and live on mission together, not merely do a spot of mission from time to time when the mood takes us. 

And so beginning a week on Wednesday - so this coming Wednesday is the Laurel Park event; please come and join us for that. And then the following Wednesday, I’ll be doing a series considering the theme of mission. What do we mean by mission? What are the challenges that confront us and how do we do it faithfully for the glory of God? That’s Wednesday night. Sunday mornings, to help us with this teaching theme, we’ll be in the first letter of Peter to the churches in Asia Minor, what we would call present day Turkey. Some have called 1 Peter a manual of Christian doctrine, and it is. Some have called it an outline of basic discipleship; it’s that too. But 1 Peter looks at both Christian life and Christian doctrine through a particular lens. Perhaps more consistently and explicitly than any other book in the New Testament with a possible exception of the Book of Acts, 1 Peter has the way that the church engages with the world particularly in view. It is once, as we’ll see, constantly realistic about the challenges, even the hardships, about the cost of following Jesus in a difficult world, and enormously encouraging and equipping and strengthening to help us be bold as we serve Christ before the eyes of our generation.

And the days in which we live, as I hope we’ll also see, echo many of the circumstances of Peter’s first readers and his counsel to them about how to navigate all of that speaks with wonderful clarity and contemporary relevance. So do please take your Bible in hand and turn to page 1014; 1 Peter, chapter 1. We are only going to look at verses 1 and 2 today by way of introduction to the letter, but I want you to notice in these two introductory verses that Peter already is setting forth two themes that will be architectonic; they’ll be shaping and foundational for everything else he will say in his letter.

First in verse 1, he talks about the Christian in relation to the world. The Christian in relation to the world. How does the world see us and how are we to be oriented toward the world around us? And then in verse 2, he begins to talk to us about the resources of grace available to us as we live in that way for God’s glory in a hostile world. He talks about the Christian in relation to God. So verse 1, the Christian in relation to the world. Verse 2, the Christian in relation to God. Before we read the text and then begin to work through that outline together, let’s pause and pray. Let’s pray together.

O God our help in ages past, come now, by Your Spirit, to help again. Open our understanding, incline our wills, awaken our affections, draw us to trust in Christ anew, to be bold in His service. Equip us for Your glory and praise by the ministry of Your Word, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

1 Peter, chapter 1 at verse 1. This is God’s holy Word:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”

I came across a phenomenon recently - I don’t know what I was reading that talked about this - but it’s a phenomenon that you will occasionally see in some stands of trees of certain species in a forest where the trees are growing close together. It’s known as “crown shyness.” I thought that was a lovely, romantic word to describe the behavior of trees - like they’re a little introverted or something! Crown shyness. I can relate to that - crown shyness! It means - nobody really knows why they do this or even how they do this, but these mature trees, when they grow up together, leave this consistent gap at the top of the trees so that the leaves of one tree never touch the leaves of the neighboring trees. So if you’re standing below looking up, you see this extraordinary, almost like a channel running around each tree. It struck me that that’s a pretty good picture, actually, of the way Christians often relate to the surrounding world, often relate to our neighbors. We grow up together in close proximity but our lives never really touch. Isn’t that so? If I can change the metaphor, haven’t you found it easy to live in a little sort of Christian bubble - minimal sustained contact with anybody who doesn’t know Jesus? That way of living has only really been possible of course because of the cultural dominance of Christianity in America. I don’t think any of you would argue, I don’t suppose, if I were then to say that that position of cultural dominance and significance and prestige for the Christian faith, that that’s rapidly disappearing if it hasn’t disappeared entirely already. 

Let me just give you a couple of statistics I came across in preparation this past week that back up my point. In a book published in 2012 - so we’re quite a ways further down the line from when this book was published - in 2012 one author reported that the number of adults in the United States that do not attend Christ had nearly doubled since 1991. You see the rapid pace? Had nearly doubled since 1991. Over 3,500 United States churches close their doors every year and the attendance of more than 80% of those remaining has plateaued or is declining. 

I don’t bring that up to discourage you, but we need to face the fact that times are changing. The church often does not face up to facts like these terribly well. For a while now, commentators have offered various accounts for why this change is taking place. The most common, the one you’re probably most familiar with, is the secularization hypothesis as enlightenment ideas and scientific rationalism has become more and more dominant in society, so the culture has become less and less prone to religious conviction and to Christianity in particular. That’s the thesis; you’ve probably heard it. Peter Berger, who’s a well-known sociologist, has challenged that hypothesis. He actually argues that modern people are not secularizing but they are pluralizing. He says this - “Modernity is not necessarily secularizing. It is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality within the same society of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions. Each one must cope with the fact that there are ‘all these others’ not just in a faraway country but right next door.” So things have changed and the challenge for us is to face up to that and respond to it faithfully before God. 

The Christian in Relation to the World 

That’s actually the first thing I want to think about with you as we consider our passage this morning. According to verse 1, 1 Peter is about being a Christian in relation to the world. Look at how he describes the way Christians relate to the world in verse 1. After introducing himself to his readers, Peter writes “to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” That phrase is striking, isn’t it? It’s important - “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” That’s who we are in relation to the world. It is vocabulary designed to connect the way Peter’s first readers understood themselves with God’s ancient people, the Jews. The Jews were elect exiles, dispersed around the world. The Diaspora - that’s a word we still often use to describe the scattered condition of the Jewish people all over the world. The Diaspora, the Dispersion began of course with the invasion of the Babylonian Empire. It had continued into Peter’s day under the Romans. 

What’s interesting about Peter’s letter and his use of that vocabulary, “elect exiles of the Dispersion,” is that he is writing to a group of churches comprised mostly of Gentiles, not of Jews. So for example, in chapter 1, verse 18, he says they have been “ransomed from the futile ways of their forefathers.” Futile ways there probably a reference to paganism. In chapter 2, verse 10, he says, “once you were not a people, now you are the people of God.” They were outsiders, and now by the grace of God in the Gospel, they become a part of the people of God. They were Gentiles, pagans. And Peter ascribes to them titles and terms normally used for the Jewish people to do two things. First, to assure them that they belonged to the people of God. They have a special status. Now they are the people of God. And secondly, and more germane to our point, he uses this language “elect exiles of the Dispersion” to highlight their minority standing, their outsider status in the eyes of the world. 

If you look down at verse 17 you’ll see that he uses this vocabulary again. He says they are to conduct themselves with fear throughout the time of their exile. While you live, he says, if you’re a Christian. This is your exile. He does it again in chapter 2, verse 11 where he calls Christians “sojourners and exiles.” A sojourner is a resident alien, a pilgrim just passing through. Croatian theologian - not someone I’d necessarily commend to you, but he has something helpful to say here - Miroslov Volf, commenting on Peter’s vocabulary, he says that “the members of Peter’s community might have become Christians because many of them were socially marginalized seems an intelligent hypothesis.” But then listen to this - “That they became alienated from their social environment in a new way when they became Christians is what the epistle explicitly states.” Now did you hear that? They became alienated from their social environment in a new way when they became Christians. 

At the time when Peter was writing - sometime in the early 60s AD, during the reign of the emperor, Nero - violent persecutions in the regions to which Peter was addressing his letter had not yet really broken out. Martyrdom was not yet on the cards for these people. It was coming; it just was not here yet. Instead, the people were facing social exclusion, social exclusion. Their faith was being tested by various kinds of trials that caused them real grief. Chapter 1, verses 6 and 7, Peter is counseling them about how to live when those around you speak evil against you, they speak about you as evildoers - chapter 2, verse 12. They’re being slandered because of their faith. He offers counsel to servants who suffer for doing good, chapter 2, verse 20. He tells the church, “Do not repay evil for evil. Bless them instead” - chapter 3, verse 9. There is a fiery trial coming, he tells them - chapter 4, verse 12. And he’s writing, therefore, to help them all get ready to suffer as Christians - chapter 4, verse 16. So do you get the picture? They are not in power; they do not occupy a position of cultural influence and significance. They have been pushed to the fringes of things. They are marginalized as weirdos for Jesus’ sake. Elect exiles of the Dispersion. And look, here’s the point. The days are now upon us when for most people in our society, to become a Christian will not be seen in a positive light at all. It is already an increasingly costly thing to stand apart from the ethics and politics and lifestyles and philosophies of the age and say instead, “I belong to Jesus.” It’s going to mean going into cultural exile. You will become a sojourner, a pilgrim, a resident alien. That’s actually my current legal status. You may think I’m an actual alien! I’m a resident alien. And Peter is saying to every single one of you, “If you’re a Christian today, news flash, that’s your status as well.” You are a resident alien. This is not home so do not put down roots. This is not home. You are a minority. You are an outsider and you’d better get used to it. And actually, Peter’s whole project - as we’re going to see in this first letter - is to help us figure out what to do with that. How do we live faithfully as outsiders rather than people with access to cultural power? How do we live as exiles of the Dispersion, resident aliens, who are just passing through?

I need help with that. Don’t you? What we’re going to see in 1 Peter that is so remarkable is that he doesn’t tell them to do what we might be tempted to tell them to do. He doesn’t tell them on the one hand to vacate the culture. That’s a strategy that’s sometimes proposed to the church when suffering begins to loom like clouds on the horizon - vacate the culture. You know, back off; create separate institutions. Create a subculture of your own; circle and wagons, hunker down. Only engage when you absolutely have to; leave the world to its mess and weather the storm. Peter doesn’t tell them to vacate the culture. He doesn’t tell them to back off. Neither does he tell them to accommodate the culture on the other hand. He doesn’t say, “Look, don’t be so strict. Don’t be too conscientious about the particulars. Just go with the flow; blend right in. What’s the big deal?” There is absolutely no possibility of cultural accommodation. There is no amalgam of Christianity and paganism that Peter will admit. Instead, 1 Peter is designed to help us find the resources to help us live faithful, generous, sacrificial lives of service and mission, and if need be, of suffering for Jesus Christ out there in the world - neither backing off nor compromising, but living a life on mission together for the blessing and benefit of the lost and for the great glory of God. And so Peter begins here, right out of the gate in verse 1 - do you see it - with a word about how Christians should relate to the world. “Elect exiles of the Dispersion.” A sobering and challenging word.

The Christian in Relation to God

But then having introduced that theme - it’s a theme he’ll come back to again and again - but having introduced it here, he immediately comes along behind it and reminds us of the resources of grace to help us live in such a way. He points us in verse 2, in the second place, to the Christian in relation to God. The Christian in relation to God, verse 2. Look at the passage with me. We are elect exiles of the Dispersion “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.” Notice the marvelous Trinitarianism of Peter’s language. The missions of each of the person’s of the Godhead - the Father in electing whom to save, in sending His Son to obey and bleed and die for His chosen people, and the Father and the Son sending the Spirit to call them to Christ and to draw them and give them new life and change them into His likeness. And Peter is saying that the missions of the persons of the Godhead begin and provide as it were the impetus for the mission of the church in the world because God moves towards us in the Gospel so He then propels us outwards with the Gospel to the world. 

Look at what he says first about the election that we have received. We are elect exiles according, in the first place, “to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Foreknowledge there does not mean knowledge about human decisions and actions and events in advance. That’s what it does not mean. It does not refer to God’s looking down, you know, the long, dark corridors of history to see beforehand what we would freely do. That’s what it does not mean. God possesses that kind of knowledge to be sure. That’s simply not what Peter is referring to here when he talks about us being elect according to the foreknowledge of the Father. You’ll notice that it is people that God foreknows, not merely people’s choices and actions. Now you may be aware, when the Bible speaks about God knowing His people it means more than merely knowing about them. It means knowing them in an intimate, personal relationship of love. “Foreknowledge,” J.I. Packer I think somewhere famously said, “Foreknowledge, to be foreknown by God is to be foreloved by Him.” Foreknowledge is a love word, not an understanding word alone. Isn’t that beautiful if you think about it? “To be foreknown is to be foreloved.” That’s what Peter’s saying. 

If you are a Christian, why are you a Christian? Because He loved you with an everlasting love. Before there was a you to love, He chose you. He did not simply anticipate that you would choose Him and so elected and aligned His purposes with your free decision. No, He saw that you never would choose Him if left to yourself, dead as you were in your trespass and sin. And because of the great love with which He loved you, He chose you and in His time called you to Himself in the Gospel. Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.

Secondly, Peter says we are elect in the sanctification of the Spirit. The sanctification of the Spirit is the evidence and seal of our election. When you first came to know Jesus, how did it happen? It happened by the mighty sovereign work of the Lord and giver of life Himself who found you just one of the moldering old bones in the valley of dry bones and breathed life into you and you stood up on your feet alive again from the dead. The Spirit of Jesus Christ came, and as you heard the Gospel, generated within you saving faith uniting you to Jesus. And in that moment, the mastery and dominion of sin was decisively broken forever and then began the slow, often painful, steady, sometimes unnoticed work of inner change and transformation enabling you to put sin to death more and more and to live unto God in new obedience more and more, enabling you to love the things of God and hate the things that God hates, to delight in the means of grace, the Spirit wielding trials, even in our lives day by day, sore and painful though they may be, to teach us to cling to God in His grace and not to rely upon ourselves. And so it seems to us by fits and starts, sometimes two steps forward and one step back, up and down, peaks and troughs, we make progress by His mighty work until we are conformed to the likeness of Jesus when at last we cross the threshold of death and enter in to the nearer presence of our Redeemer. You are elect in the sanctification of the Spirit, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.

And thirdly, you are elect “for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling with His blood.” Now we need to do a little bit of work here because the English Standard Version makes some interpretive decisions based on the original Greek that I think are questionable, frankly. The English Standard Version we are using reads, “We are elect for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with His blood.” It reorders the sentence, which in the original is more like, “elect for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ.” That may not seem like too terribly different to you, but it is a significant difference for this reason. Both the obedience and the sprinkled blood are modified by “of Jesus Christ.” The ESV wants to make obedience refer to us. It’s our obedience and it’s the sprinkled blood of Jesus. But both the obedience and the sprinkled blood here actually belong to the “of Jesus Christ.” What Peter is talking about is the obedience and blood of Jesus. He’s talking about the life of Christ - a life we never could live; a life nevertheless to which we were all called to live, a life of perfect obedience to the holy demands of the living God. And His record of spotless righteousness, as well as His self-giving at the cross atoning for our sin, together comprise the good news. He has made perfect comprehensive provision for every single sinner, howsoever guilty you may be, however deep and dark you think the stain of your sin, because of Jesus Christ, today you can be clean; robed in the righteousness of Christ. Your guilt atoned for and your sin taken away by His precious blood. Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Now think about how all of that would have landed for Peter’s first hearers. They are elect exiles of the Dispersion, sojourners, pilgrims, weirdos, fringe people, spoken ill of, marginalized, suffering for righteousness sake. And Peter is saying to them, “You know, you’re right. It is going to cost you to walk in faithful obedience to King Jesus. There will be a social cost for sure. People who once were your friends won’t want to be your friends anymore. There’ll be an economic cost. You may not get that promotion. There’s going to be a cost to following Jesus and I don’t want you to back off and I don’t want you to give up. I don’t want you to circle the wagons in a Christian subculture of your own, and I don’t want you to compromise and blend in chameleon-like to the world. No, I really do want you to step forward, to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. I really do want you to be ready to give a reason to anyone who asks you for the hope that you have with gentleness and respect. I want you to step forward, not to step back.” 

Well then, Peter, how are we going to do that? Given the cost that is going to come, how are we going to do that? Where will we find the resources to take what seems to me to be a terrible risk? Peter says, “Don’t forget that you are foreloved. You are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. He loved you from eternity.” Geerhardus Vos, the great Biblical theologian, put it wonderfully when he said, “The best proof that God will never stop loving you is that He never began.” He has always loved you, believer in Jesus. He has always loved you. He has never once thought of you without thinking of you with a Father’s love for a precious child. You are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father and you are utterly secure in the grip of His love, whatever may come, whatever they may say of you, whatever the cost may be. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

And you are elect in the sanctification of the Spirit. In other words, God the Holy Spirit will never give up on you till the work is done. How are you going to make it when the going gets tough? How will you keep putting one foot in front of the other when the hill seems so very steep sometimes, so hard and sore, when all the pressure of the world to compromise is bearing down upon you? How will you press on? You have the assurance that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” He finishes what He starts. There is not one single Christian brought out of death into life, brought from darkness into light, who beginning the Christian life didn’t finish it. Not one. Not one! The Spirit will make you holy. He will make you like Jesus Christ one day. He will. And yes, it’s going to be hard. And yes, there will be many stumbles along the way. But He will never give up on you, and so you can persevere. And you are elect for obedience and the sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ. What is the great anchor of your assurance and confidence before God and the watching world? Isn’t it this? That it is finished. That your debt is paid. That God is satisfied. That you stand now and forever righteous. That nothing can change it; nothing can change your right-standing before God. You are His. You have been bought at a price.

I recently came across a story that said when they first began building the Golden Gate Bridge they didn’t use any safety equipment really and so about twenty-three people fell to their deaths. And so in the second half, at the end part of the construction project they used a net - I suppose like the kind of thing you would see in a circus for a trapeze act. And about ten more people fell from the bridge and were saved from certain death. What’s remarkable is that twenty-five percent more work got done on the bridge after the net was installed. How come? Because they knew they were safe. They knew they were safe. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are safe in the love of God. You are safe in His purpose to finish the work He has begun. You are safe because Jesus has bought and paid for you and you are His. You are safe, and so you can face a dark world. Yes, it’s going to be sore and hard and long and difficult and confusing, no doubt. But you can do it with great confidence and great boldness because you are safe. The Lord, the Lord has you. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.” And so may the Lord bless us to see again the security He has provided and from that place of absolute security in the love of God make bold to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light to live a life on mission together. I want to ask you please to join me in praying for 1 Peter over the weeks ahead of us that God would wield it in the hearts and lives of every one of us to begin to turn us with new willingness to serve our Savior in our generation toward the world all around us, for His glory and praise. Would you do that with me? Now let’s bow our heads now as we pray.

Lord, the truth is, sometimes our behavior has been either to back away from the challenges of the culture into our little ghettos, to hunker down and to avoid the conflict or to compromise, to just join society, to cave in ethically and theologically to the dictates of whatever the latest fad may be because we’re scared - truth be told. We’re scared that if we are different, if we love with boundaries, if we insist on truth and pursue people with sacrificial generosity we will be painted with a target, and we will. And so here we are now trembling before You at the call, at the summons to be elect exiles of the Dispersion, knowing what that might mean. Help us please to see the vast security, the immovability of every child of God in Your purposes. Help us to feel safe. Push it down into our affections so that it penetrates and sets us free to be bold because we know that if God is for us, who can be against us. He who did not spare His own Son, how will He not also graciously with Him give us all things? Help us to feel and to know that there are no such things as risks in the service of Jesus Christ who works all things together for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose. And as that truth begins to penetrate, set us free to live on mission together for Your glory, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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